HS2 has taken a major step forward, with the formal signing of contracts to deliver the tunnels, bridges and earthworks that will carry the first phase of the UK’s new high speed railway from London to Birmingham in 2026.

High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd Chief Executive, Mark Thurston, was joined by representatives from SCS JV, Align JV, CEK JV and Balfour Beatty VINCI, in a signing ceremony at the company’s Birmingham head office. The winning companies, whose names were released by the Department for Transport last month (17 July 2017), will go on to support 16,000 jobs across the UK-wide supply chain as they deliver what will be the biggest investment in UK’s transport infrastructure since the building of the motorways.

High Speed Two (HS2) Ltd Chief Executive, Mark Thurston, was joined by representatives from SCS JV, Align JV, CEK JV and Balfour Beatty VINCI, in a signing ceremony at the company’s Birmingham head office. The winning companies, whose names were released by the Department for Transport last month (17 July 2017), will go on to support 16,000 jobs across the UK-wide supply chain as they deliver what will be the biggest investment in UK’s transport infrastructure since the building of the motorways.

Welcoming the milestone for the project, HS2 Chief Executive Mark Thurston said “HS2 is more than just a railway. The contracts will provide much needed extra capacity and connectivity between our major cities, but it will also unlock huge opportunities for new jobs, homes and economic development and start to rebalance our economy.

“We are determined to deliver the project to new levels of safety and efficiency, with respect for communities, protection for the environment and value for money at the core of everything we do. The contracts we signed today will support 16,000 jobs and generate thousands of contract opportunities within the wider supply chain, spreading the benefits of this investment across the whole country.”

A team made up of Skanska, Costain and STRABAG (SCS JV) will build the first section of the route which is in a tunnel between Euston and Old Oak Common and onwards to Northolt. Welcoming the contract award, Peter Jones, Executive Director and SCS JV board member said “We are delighted to have been awarded these major contracts by HS2 which follow on from the South Enabling Works Contract awarded last year.

The awards are further testimony to the SCS collaborative approach and our strong track record in applying technology-based innovative solutions in the delivery of large-scale projects.

Align JV, a team made up of Bouygues, VolkerFitzpatrick and Sir Robert McAlpine will build the next stage, including the Colne Valley Viaduct and Chilterns Tunnel. Welcoming the contract award, Jérôme Furgé, Align Project Director said “I have worked on many major projects around the world, and find it a special privilege to be working on HS2. This project will require a unique level of collaboration between all of us and the highest industry standards, expected by HS2, will be implemented in order to obtain the very best outcome. My Align colleagues and I are delighted to be part of the challenge to deliver a world-class asset to the UK.

The largely rural stages between the Chilterns Tunnel and Long Itchington will be built by a team made up of Carillion, Eiffage and Kier (CEK JV). Welcoming the contract award, Sean Jeffery, Executive Director and Chairman of CEK JV Board said “We are delighted to have been selected to help deliver this major infrastructure project and look forward to working in partnership with HS2. Our involvement in this project will enable us to create many new jobs and training opportunities as well as working with a diverse range of supply chain businesses from across the UK.”

A team made up of Balfour Beatty and VINCI will complete the route, taking the line north past Birmingham Airport and into the new Curzon Street station in the centre of Birmingham, as well as onward to a connection with the existing West Coast Mainline at Handsacre. Welcoming the contract award, Mark Cutler, Balfour Beatty VINCI HS2 Managing Director, said “I am proud that our long-standing joint venture has been chosen to deliver these two important and complex sections of HS2.

“This iconic rail infrastructure project will create significant opportunities for the UK construction industry and enable long term benefits in skills, jobs and regional prosperity. We look forward to building on our successful track record of major infrastructure projects, and playing our part in the delivery of HS2.”

The contracts are two-stage, with the contractors spending the first 16 months working collaboratively with HS2 Ltd on the detailed design before construction begins around 2018/19. Preparatory work has already begun on the project with geological investigation underway across the route and ecological and archaeological work due to begin soon.

Last week the government awarded £6.6bn in contracts to build the new high-speed HS2 railway between London and Birmingham, to companies including crisis-ridden construction firm Carillion.

Construction work is due to begin next year on new stations, tunnels, embankments and viaducts on the London to Birmingham line, which forms the first phase of the controversial HS2 project. The civil engineering alone is expected to create 16,000 jobs.

It was welcomed as a “shot in the arm for Brexit Britain, providing thousands of jobs and billions investment that helps close the north-south divide,” but is that really the case?

According to CMF Capital’s John Mulheron, perhaps more worrying is the budget to deliver and whether it will support the vision of wider UK growth and prosperity. “The figures are eye-watering and the debate on whether HS2 is value for money a hot topic. Back in January 2012 £32.7bn was set aside for the total project. That figure now stands at £55.7bn.”

“Opponents have warned that the government is underestimating the costs, and that construction has already been delayed. The overall budget was revised up, but estimates drawn up on behalf of Lord Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group, suggested it could be as high as £111bn which would be a serious overspend and bring into question its value for money.” Commented Mulheron.

Lord Berkeley’s calculation was produced by Michael Byng, an expert for the Department of Transport who devised the standard method used for Network Rail to cost projects. It essentially works out to £403m a mile to build, which is 15 times the ‘cost per mile’ compared to the latest French TGV project extension. The stretch from London Euston to Old Oak Common has escalated to £8.25bn alone.

Whilst that figure was dismissed as nonsense, it’s worth pointing out the Chris Grayling’s submitted budget doesn’t include trains – about £7bn of new ‘state of the art’ rolling stock is needed. With the Government’s focus on Brexit negotiations, the fall-out from Grenfell and the fall-outs within the cabinet, it seems wise to urgently assign a few more bean counters to Grayling’s team for a little more diligence. Diligence to date has cost about £2bn in planning fee’s alone – nice work if you can get it.

So, what are the reasons for the spiralling costs? “The UK is densely populated with high degrees of home ownership (for those over 35 years old) and a high use of the railway infrastructure. All of which makes the price of land and the cost of disruption very expensive. If this was China or Russia the bulldozers would simply pile through. Fortunately, here people have rights and they are prepared to dig their heels in over them, this is likely to slow progress even further.” Said the CMF Capital Managing Director.

Whilst HS2 will create direct engineering and construction jobs, it will also impact employment in the short term. As homes get demolished local business communities that relied on their weekly spend will go under. In a poll, back in November last year an overwhelming 77% of the public would prefer the billions being spent on HS2 to go to the NHS and public services. No doubt given the latest crime figures that percentage might be a touch higher.

Looking at the proposed phase 2 routes also unveiled this week, the obvious omission is there is still no plan to join Manchester to Leeds or Leeds to the North East. The M62 is a daily carpark and the rail network linking these key cities frankly embarrassing.

Transport for the North, the body set up to deliver new infrastructure argues that by just improving transport connections across the Pennines – halving the Leeds to Manchester journey to 30mins – it would bring greater economic benefit than the high-speed link to London ever could. A five-fold boost to rail travel by 2050 could add £100bn to the region’s economy and create 850,000 new jobs.

“The other ongoing argument is that whilst HS2 will increase capacity to our current creaking Victorian network, it will simply make it quicker to travel to London and not benefit the northern powerhouse regions. That phrase that has all but disappeared from Tory manifestos since George Osbourne was told to get a new handful of jobs.” Commented Mulheron.

With businesses scrambling to promote themselves to a wider global audience in the wake of Brexit, it’s no wonder the north of England, with a GDP of £350bn – equivalent to the 21st largest economy in the world and exports 19% of the UK total continually feels like London’s second cousin twice removed. Expanding Heathrow at vast cost is another example of a London centric approach to growth and there are no plans for HS2 to link up to the airport.

Whilst the phrase Northern Powerhouse might have died, the region’s revival goes on. Aerospace, manufacturing, engineering and digital industries are growing at pace. The regional purchasing managers’ surveys show growth faster than the national average. But it’s still not shifting the ‘productivity needle’. Which, is what ministers and economists are pinning on HS2 to help solve.

“As ever, there is no one silver bullet and we need more immediate solutions than a project set to take decades to complete. Currently, not a single metre of track has been laid. To compete in a global economy the region needs to take advantage of new trading opportunities beyond Europe. There is capacity at Manchester and Leeds airports, so opening new trans-Atlantic or Asian routes would send an instant signal that we’re open to business across the country.” Concluded Mulheron.

The news that HS2 is progressing should be met with gentle applause, but more needs to be done in the short term to build confidence that in turn fuels investment. One final point to note, HS2’s announcement coincided with Elon Musk receiving verbal approval from the US Government to take his Hyperloop concept to the next stage.

Journey times from Washington to New York City would be around 29mins. Edinburgh to London, phase one of his European ‘Hyperloop One’ would be about 50mins of travel. Given the pace at which HS2 is likely to progress, Musk might still beat us to the ticket barriers.

The Queen has officially reopened the transformed Birmingham New Street station.

Accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, Her Majesty unveiled a plaque marking her visit – the first to New Street in her 62-year reign and her first visit to the city since her Diamond Jubilee tour in 2012.

The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh were greeted by a host of dignitaries – including Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail and Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail – after arriving at the station on the Royal Train.

They were shown an exhibition of the station through the ages since it was first built in the 1880s and were introduced to many of those involved in building the latest incarnation. They also met staff who help meet the needs of the 170,000 passengers who use Birmingham New Street every day.

The new station, including the new Grand Central shopping complex, was unveiled in September this year after a five-year, £750m Network Rail project.

Today’s opening ceremony, which took place on the station’s stunning concourse under its vast atrium, included speeches from the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Ray Hassall, and Sir Peter Hendy before her Majesty unveiled the special plaque which will take pride of place within the station.

The Queen also attended a short service of dedication, led by the Bishop of Birmingham, The Right Reverend David Urquhart, for the PALS War Memorial outside the new station. The PALS were volunteer soldiers from the city who were involved in World War I after signing up to the army in September 1914.

Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, said: “It was an honour to welcome The Queen to Birmingham New Street and be part of a very special day for Birmingham. For such an impressive and transformed station, it was fitting that it was officially reopened by Her Majesty.

“Birmingham New Street is helping to boost the regeneration of the city centre as well as provide the millions of passengers who use it with a modern, 21st century station. With the Grand Central development above it, it is a unique station which is vital to the continued development of Birmingham and the wider region.

“Our Railway Upgrade Plan is providing a better railway for passengers and this station is the latest example of how these improvements are benefiting millions of people and helping boost our economy at a local and national level.”

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, who attended the reopening, said: “Birmingham New Street is a truly remarkable development that is not only providing better journeys for passengers, but also driving economic growth and regeneration across the West Midlands and beyond.

“This is just one example of the record investment we are making in the rail network across the UK as part of our long-term economic plan.”

Chris Montgomery, Network Rail’s project director who oversaw the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street, said: “The Queen officially reopening Birmingham New Street station is the culmination of many years of hard work by thousands of people involved in the project. This is a proud day for the project team, for Network Rail and for Birmingham.”

Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, said: “Birmingham New Street station has undergone a magnificent transformation and, together with the Grand Central development, has transformed the gateway to our city.

“I am confident this project will pave the way for continued regeneration, creating many more jobs and opportunities for the people of Birmingham.”

The Queen and Duke’s visit was broadcast on the station’s largest ‘media eye’ at the front of the station for the public to watch while many also gathered inside.

The redeveloped Birmingham New Street station opened its doors to passengers on 20 September 2015 after a five-year, £750m transformation.

Boasting an iconic new atrium over a huge passenger concourse – five times the size of London Euston’s – the station has been rebuilt while trains continued to run as normal for the 170,000 passengers a day who use it.

With brighter, de-cluttered platforms, improved entrances, a range of new facilities and an abundance of natural light over the new concourse, Birmingham New Street, one of Britain’s busiest inter-change stations, is also a retail destination in its own right.

The new station will eventually feature 43 shops at concourse level. Above it sits the new Grand Central shopping complex, including one of the UK’s largest John Lewis department stores.